Written by Jess Carpinone, Co-Owner, Bread By Us Espresso Bar & Bakery, and BWA Membership Manager
When my bakery was just a baby, I stumbled across an article in an industry magazine about a cool bakery in Hamilton, Ontario, that was owned by two women. It caught my eye because in the article, the bakery-owners talked about something that very few people in my industry were talking about at the time: how to create good jobs.
It was love at first read. Reading about Josie & Nickey was one of the first times I felt a real connection and real solidarity with peers in my industry. Before encountering their work, I was full of self-doubt. Learning about what they were doing gave me the confidence I needed to keep doing what I was doing, even if it seemed to defy the conventional wisdom of business ownership.
Ever since then, I’ve been quietly watching Cake & Loaf from a distance grow into vocal and inspirational industry leaders. As it happens, life has taken me in a new and interesting direction in the past year, and I now have the opportunity to finally connect with (and not just online-lurk) small business owners who are passionately creating good jobs and community-minded businesses. As soon as I got the chance, I knew I wanted to try and tell Cake & Loaf’s story – one that has motivated me to keep striving in my own little flour-coated corner in Ottawa over the years.
Talking to Cake & Loaf’s co-owner Josie Rudderham was such a pleasure. After being in business for 15 years, growing the business into two locations with over 30 employees, facing the challenges of the pandemic, creating good jobs for the community, condensing their business back into one store, and publishing two (!!) cookbooks (pre-orders are open now for their latest book), Josie had so much wisdom to share. One highlight for me were her insights into how we can run our small businesses sustainably:
“Over the last 15 years I’ve definitely come to the conclusion that first it’s not enough to just center yourself in a business. There’s other aspects to being a person you need to honor those but also just that there’s no finish line in entrepreneurship. It is a continuous thing. So you have to set it up as sustainable. And if your models aren’t sustainable, as they often aren’t in food, you’ll be burned out. “
Listen in on our full conversation as we talk about a shockingly wide range of topics. In this interview, you’ll hear us get really vulnerable about management strategies and challenges, how we define “success” as business owners, how we create good jobs, what Josie would do if she were elected Prime Minister (Josie for PM!), hustle culture, #growth, creating healthy boundaries, legacy, and SO MUCH MORE.
What follows is a condensed version of my interview with Josie. You can listen on the media player below too. I hope you enjoy reading/listening as much as I enjoyed having this conversation.
Jess: Could you start by telling me a little bit about you and your business?
Josie: My name is Josie, and I own Cake and Loaf Bakery with another woman, Nickey Miller. When we started our business we absolutely started the complete opposite way. We were thinking, okay, we live within this system, and we know that parts of the system are broken because we had seen it in our workplaces. We had been working at bakeries, where sexual harassment was a real issue. Wage theft was a real issue. Having people work overtime and not compensating them–stuff like that. And although we are totally passionate about the food we make, and that is primarily what drives us, we really wanted to create a workplace that we wanted to be in.
We wanted to respect the craft of our workers but also their home lives. And so we really did take a bottom-up approach, saying, “Okay, we’re not just creating baked goods. We’re creating careers. What do those careers look like? How do people age in them? All sorts of considerations that we thought that the bakeries we had worked at hadn’t been able to consider or didn’t care to consider.
So we started our bakery. Originally we decided to start a bakery in 2008. It took us a couple years to get it off the ground, and while we were doing that we did farmers markets, and we created a CSB (community shared bakery). And then in 2011 we were able to actually open our doors at our bakery, and ever since then it has been a real challenge to balance our goals. Our primary goal is to create great careers. Our secondary goal is to create great food. Our tertiary goal is to enrich our community and all of those can be conflicting. All of those can be really difficult because of outside forces.
And it’s hard to be competitive. Obviously, if you are, if you choose to run a business like that, you have to really make sure that the customer understands that those are the inputs going in. So you’re competing, you know, at a different level. You’re not competing with businesses who are not doing that kind of thing
We’ve been around for 15 years now, like we’ve been through quite a journey. In early 2020 we had about 30 staff and 2 locations. Now in 2023, it looks a little different. We have about 12 employees in just one location and our primary focus is serving the community and our immediate neighborhood.
Jess: When you first opened, did people raise their eyebrows, or cast any doubt in your minds that what you were trying to do was weird?
Josie: Oh, totally, and I think you just nailed it. People don’t think you can run a ”successful” business [with worker well-being and good jobs at the forefront]. But what does success look like? We were just hyper aware that we lived in this system that was defining success in a way that we didn’t agree with. It’s not successful to make a lot of money and have a bunch of employees working at minimum wage and not being able to meet their own bills. I’m not going on vacations while my employees are worried about how they’re going to put food on the table. That is not success to me, and it never was success to us.
I think fundamentally, it is always super challenging to push back against a system. You have to ignore the voices that you don’t respect, and you have to seek out voices that you respect. You can’t just listen to anybody.
Jess: That reminds me of where I was as well at the beginning of my business journey. It sounds like maybe you came from having worked in kitchens. Is that right?
Josie: It was my exposure to the mortgage industry that solidified how we were gonna run our business, because I saw what everyone earned. I saw applications come through. I saw exactly what kind of careers paid what salaries. And I met those people, and I understood a little bit about like what their work life looked like. We’d had conversations, and so I had this broad understanding of what employment looks like, and I could see very clearly how classism and racism and sexism had played into this structure of kitchens, bakeries, or restaurants. The expectations are lower but that didn’t have to be true.
I was exposed to the realities of the financial sector. And how rich people use money versus poor people, and the types of opportunities that privilege affords, that might be invisible to a lot of people. It just really was an education in the economy, basically.
Jess: I want to talk to you a bit about the idea of workplace culture and what it means to create a healthy workplace culture. I am curious to know how much thought you put into creating that culture, and how that translates on the ground. When you speak about “everybody having value”, that’s really counter-culture.
I have talked to a lot of people over the years about how to deal with specific human resources issues as they come up. I’m often told, you know, “let that person go,” or “move on.” There’s a tendency toward disposability that is ingrained to our culture that doesn’t sit well with me. How do you project your value systems into your business?
Josie: First of all, people are not disposable. People go through phases in their lives, and sometimes the employee is “useless,” right? Because they’re going through a personal crisis, or something has happened to them that is big enough that it has affected them temporarily. I believe in loyalty. You don’t throw someone out because of that. You work with them, and you try to figure out what is going on. “Do you need some time off? Do you need a different position for a little while?”
We’ve definitely been accused of holding on to people longer than was “business savvy”, but that’s out of respect for what they contributed when they were a perfect employee. I just think, like loyalty goes both ways, and you need to kind of see people through different phases of their life if you’re expecting them to work for you for 10, 20, 30 years.
The other thing that was the most painful thing I’ve probably ever done and still remains a little painful to be honest, is allowing employees to evaluate us anonymously. In the early days that was harsh, because you know what I actually wasn’t that good at managing. Now I know I have ADHD; I’m a super literal person. I communicate very directly. That came off in my early days as bitchy and pushy, and some people really need you to walk them there.
It hit hard and it took a little while to digest, and I was probably pretty defiant about it at first, but I’ve changed a lot in the 15 years I’ve been managing people. Getting honest feedback is very, very hard. It can hurt your feelings, but it’s so important in the long run.
Jess: Part of our job as managers, I think, is to understand how each person operates individually and to tailor our approach accordingly. I put a lot of effort into understanding each individual. But that’s a lot of labor and effort for me to do. What do you think is our responsibility and job as managers, in that way?
Josie: Yeah, I fundamentally agree that you need to be aware of the unique nature of every employee, because if you’re investing in these people again for decades, hopefully, right? You need an intimate enough understanding to be able to approach them in a way that’s respectful. But it’s also a real challenge. I found it a real challenge to keep doing that, but also make sure you’re applying things fairly. So the only problem is that you get into a situation where the squeaky wheel gets the grease sometimes. If I have a person who is naturally introverted or who has something about them that makes them less willing to come forward with needs, or it’s less obvious that they have needs.
So that’s still a tension that I’m not totally sure how to solve, which is why I think policies exist right? To apply things fairly. But then we’re hyper aware when you work right next to a person that that doesn’t always make sense either. So I think I don’t have a perfect response. But it’s an effort to just be like, how do you do this better, right? How do you create true accessibility at a job? That is what I’ve been thinking about a lot.
Jess: I think that you’re talking essentially about equity and how to build equity and fairness into good jobs and organizations, which I think is something that is so crucial to building a resilient and successful organization, but that, as food service businesses is so hard. I trained as a baker, and now I’m like “diversity, equity, inclusion” you know? And I’m thinking, “What am I doing!?” But the reality is, if you are going to build a successful decades-long business, you kind of have to be asking yourself “How do I deal with accessibility issues? How do I deal with discrimination? And, you know, unfair application of policies. How are my policies biased? What are my biases?”
Josie: I think to, yeah, to be fair, the laundry list of my regrets around that is just as long as our successes. And that’s and that’s the point, right? When you’re trying to do things well, it is a never ending thing. You’ll nail one part of it. You think “oh, I didn’t even think of that.” But I think that’s kind of the beauty of it. We’re trying to create justice in an unjust world.
But also I’m often reminded of how our success influences others, how our success builds confidence in people, even if those employees don’t stay with me, they learn what they’re worth, and they know what they deserve, and they will go to other workplaces and they will demand that because that is their rights, like they do have legal rights, that a lot of workplaces ignore. And I’ve had people come back and say, “because you treat me like that, I was able to stand up to this or this.”
And so, yeah, I’m right there with you–laundry list of regrets. There’s a list of employees I think about calling all the time to say “I’m sorry. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I wish it had been different. I could have made a different choice.”
But you gotta go forward, right?
Jess: As a business owner, we only have so much control over workers’ pay, their working conditions, their wellbeing, because so much of our ability to let’s say, pay people better, is shaped by consumer beliefs. Can you speak a little bit to how food service workers are impacted by that and how that impacts your business?
Josie: Yeah, I think we certainly dreamed of a world where we could build a bakery where people made, you know, $50,000 a year. We thought that was a salary for a good job that we could reach. And we worked really, really hard to do that. What became increasingly obvious as years went on, is working conditions generally in the restaurant baking industry, were atrocious. They have improved a little bit. I think there was a lot of education around it, especially through the #metoo movement. Like sexual assault – I feel like we made great strides in that particular area.
But it really hit home when my husband became an electrician. I was doing my red seal pastry apprenticeship. He was doing his electrician’s apprenticeship. We went to school for the same amount of time. We did the same number of courses. And of course, an electrician is a very important job, and there is a lot of safety involved in that. But there is a lot of safety in food as well. At any point we could poison large amounts of people, and you have to make sure that you’re following regulations, and you’re following safety rules, and that your staff is educated enough to notice the subtleties about that.
It just felt incredibly unfair that at the end of this process–this pretty equal process that the 2 of us went through–that he was gonna step into a career where his hourly package was $100 full benefits and he could take that and work anywhere at that rate. Because that’s what his union dictated. And he was lucky to be part of a big union in a big city, and so the rates were really really high. But he could have gone anywhere in Canada and made easily 3 times what I could make trying to get a job with my Red Seal.
And so I put that down largely to unionization. And I’m a huge union supporter, and I grew up in a union friendly family. I think people have a lot of misplaced anger targeted at unions because they get some sort of impression that they have more power than they should, but I think the reality is that they allow a large segment of the population who would maybe not have the ability to advocate for themselves to engage in these careers and make really good money, and not have to have a Master’s degree, or something that is not accessible to everybody.
So fundamentally, it feels unfair. Fundamentally, it feels classist and racist and sexist, given the history of who works in kitchens versus the trades. The trades, historically, have been mainly white men in Canada, although obviously there’s exceptions. So I would love to see kitchens organized into unions. I know that that is completely contrary to what most employers would like to see, but I think it would have to take that kind of movement to shift the public’s perception of what it takes to make food and what food costs we’re in an upsetting time for food costs, personally and professionally. I’m sure people are really feeling it for the first time, but I’m a little bit happy that people kinda understand my conversations now. Like, “oh, food costs!”
Yeah, we deal with that all the time like that volatile nature is part of our business, and we are constantly facing that stress.
Jess: If you woke up tomorrow, and you were elected to office, what actions would you take to either address issues that small businesses are facing or that workers are facing, or both?
Josie: I believe in a basic income. I think that the pandemic really nailed that home for me. I believed in it before then, but I think fundamentally there’s a lot of things broken about how we live our lives and how we interact as communities and how we make food. So first I would start with a basic income.
I think what is also kind of missing is like that idea that food is a community resource. There’s a lot of great community centers that have public gardens and public kitchens, and I would love to see that in every community. I know the community I live in now in Nova Scotia doesn’t really have anything like that, because I think historically, that happened like in churches.
I would fund like crazy! I would give all of the funding to small scale food producers, food businesses, farmers markets, and teach people to cook again. I wanna sell them food but I want them to understand how to cook so they know the type of stuff that goes into it.
So I guess that’s my Utopia is where people reconnect with their food. Where they reconnect with the land, they reconnect with the food, and I think out of that comes a shift in how they view climate change, how they view community building, how we view supporting people in our community that can’t support themselves. I think we would be happier if we just had more meals together.
Jess: I’m curious to know how your relationship to home and family has changed for you over the 15 years you’ve been in business?
Josie: I think the biggest lie I was ever told as an entrepreneur was “ if you just hustle hard enough you’ll have success.” That’s a lie. It’s not about working harder. It’s not about just putting in more hours. And like I lived that lie for a long time. I neglected things that I probably shouldn’t have neglected. I know my business partner feels the same.
It feels as entrepreneurs that it is all on you, but it also feels like it’s all your fault. If you could just do things better, then everything would line up right. If you personally could just fix this everything would line up and people put that pressure on you and you put it on yourself. It’s certainly part of the hustle culture.
Over the last 15 years I’ve definitely come to the conclusion that first it’s not enough to just center yourself in a business. There’s other aspects to being a person you need to honour those but also just that there’s no finish line in entrepreneurship. It is a continuous thing. So you have to set it up as sustainable. And if your models aren’t sustainable, as they often aren’t in food, you’ll be burned out.
So, yeah, I’m not listening to that voice anymore that says “just hustle!” I moved my whole family to Nova Scotia recently. And that was why. The hustle wasn’t getting me where I thought I was gonna get. And I had given up too much. And I had to just refocus around the things that are really important that I know would be there in 20 or 30 years. So my business is really important. But it’s not as important as all that stuff.
Jess: I think the idea of de-centering yourself from your business and having the business be built around a core group of people that can all take care of it together is also a very smart direction to go in, and it sounds like you’ve got some long-term employees, your partner, yourself, and you all kind of contribute in a way.
Is there anything in particular that you want to plug or talk about before we say goodbye?
Josie: I am really proud that our second cookbook is coming out March 14th. It’s called “Gatherings” and it is all about throwing a party and reconnecting to people and recreating connections in a time when we’ve lost a lot of the connections.
Order Cake & Loaf’s new book here.